Monthly Archives: June 2010

Everything I need to know I learned in middle school by guest blogger Deborah Re, Big Sister’s CEO

Admittedly it’s been a long time since I was in the seventh grade.  I grew up in Roslindale and attended a local K-8 school.  Now, as the head of a girl-serving organization, I was curious to find out what was on the minds of adolescent girls growing up in Boston today. I also wanted to actually experience our Group Mentoring program and how it “worked.”  Well, I heard what was on the minds of young girls and I know first-hand why our Group mentoring program is successful. But, I learned a whole lot more than that.  

Being a Big Sister is about being in the moment; it’s being totally real, authentic, and present to whatever is said or whatever you are feeling. If you truly want to connect with adolescent girls, then you must be ready to give and to receive; you must have an open mind and, an open heart.

There were nine girls sitting around a table the first day I walked into the room. They were all chatting, talking over each other, laughing loudly; the sound was high-pitched and loud. There was one girl who sat by herself putting her hair in a pony tail.  I sat down quietly in the available chair and then it hit me: I was nervous. As the CEO of Big Sister, I often tell women who are thinking of becoming a Big Sister that you don’t need special skills, that age is irrelevant and that just being there to listen, encourage and support girls is all that matters. Yet there I was silently telling myself that I was too old, that I didn’t know what music they listened to, what TV shows they watched, what books or movies they liked; and, the message that bothered me the most: the girls didn’t look like me.  How will I connect with them?  How could I, a successful, confident woman who champions diversity and inclusion feel that ethnicity, race, or age could get in the way of a connection between me and a young girl? I was creating a barrier before I even had the chance to talk to the girls. I felt unsettled.

I met with my group at a middle school in Roxbury every week on Thursday afternoons for 90 minutes. After the girls ate their lunch, we began our activities with a check-in. Each girl would tell the group how they felt by giving a number from 1-10.  

“I’m a 5 today because I had a fight with my mother.” 

“I’m a 9 because I’m going to the movies with my friend this weekend.”

“I’m a 2 because…”

After the check-in, the social worker leading the group initiated games that were fun for the girls but also unveiled the issues they may be dealing with:  body image, relationships, conflict resolution, self-esteem, and puberty. These activities were certainly informative and helped the girls to make healthy choices in their lives. But, what struck me the most were the questions that they asked me directly.

The questions weren’t asked in rapid-fire succession, but over the course of our time together. They were simple and telling.

“Deb, do you get paid to come here every week?”

“No” I responded.

“Why do you come here?”

“To be with you.”

Another girl responded “Wow, that’s cool. You are coming here to hang out with us!” 

“Where do you live?” one girl asked.

“Jamaica Plain.”

“You mean near here? You live near here?”

“Yes.”

There were other questions about the choices I made in my life, the fact that I was married yet didn’t have children, the fact that I paid someone to put the “yellow stripes” in my hair or that I went to college and now work full time. We were equally curious about each other and more questions led to more dialogue between us.

“I wish I was smart” a girl named LaToya said under her breath one day. I didn’t know what to say. How trite would it sound if I said “You are smart, don’t let anyone tell you that you’re not.” I said nothing. The following week, she was on my team. Our goal was to build the tallest structure that could stand on its own using just straws. The four of us began making the building by connecting the straws, but realized that we didn’t know how to make it stand on its own. Then LaToya said, “I know, I’ll make a drawing first.” She took a piece of paper and drew a building that had four corners and was strengthened by straws across each square. We used her drawing to build not only the tallest building, but also the strongest. I looked at her and said “You made this possible. You took the initiative to create the drawing and worked as part of the team to make your concept a reality. Only a smart person can do that.” She beamed.

Our Group is over for now. I know that these girls will hold our time together in their heads and in their hearts. I know that they now think differently about themselves. I now have a purple string around my wrist. LaToya tied my string, and I tied hers. We made a pact to not forget each other or all that we learned from each other.

I know that I think differently about myself now. Martin Luther King Jr.’s words often ring in my ears and today, this is what I am hearing: Everybody can be great…because anybody can serve.  You don’t have to have a college degree to serve.  You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve.  You only need a heart full of grace.  A soul generated by love.